Textbook Leftovers

Following the Sun

Posted on: February 16, 2011

Maybe it’s just me, but when I think of “Egyptian religion” (admittedly not something I think of on a daily basis), I think of a multitude of strange gods with animal heads. And that neat-looking eye that supposedly symbolizes Ra. And Stargate.  So when I turned to the section of Egyptian religious poetry, I was expecting something decidedly polytheistic and foreign to me.

I was very wrong. These selections of poetry are monotheistic in the extreme – my Judeo-Christian-raised brain kept flashing to Psalms, that’s how monotheistic it was. The introduction indicates that this exclusive worship of the sun god was later viewed as heretical, so this is clearly not a representative sample of the religion of Egypt, but it was nonetheless surprising to me. Clearly, I have much to learn.

First up is Akhenaten’s “Hymn to the Sun.” He was Pharaoh from 1375 to 1358 BC and was also known as Amun-hotep IV. Being that he was king, I had to forcibly restrain myself from comparing him with King David of Israel. This poem is formed of 12 stanzas of varying length, and each carries a certain theme. The themes are what one would expect: omnipresence, omnipotence, creation. The final stanza, longer than the others, is a prayer for the sun god’s metaphorical son – the author himself. I’m not sure if he actually thought he was the son of the sun, or if that was current religious “truth,” but in any case it is common for religious people to consider themselves “children” of their god, so it’s not all that weird.

Unfortunately, I have no way of knowing what I have lost in translation, and in all likelihood a lot of the beauty of the original language is left behind. Nevertheless, this poem is beautiful and powerful. It evokes a great deal of nature imagery, which should not be surprising. This pharaoh seems to have spent a great deal of time contemplating the order of nature, and his reverence for it is clear. The phrasing is evocative and relatable, and I am genuinely impressed.

Next is a set of four poems known as The Leiden Hymns. These are taken from a papyrus which dates to the reign of Rameses II (circa 1238 BC), which some of you may recognize as being the approximate time of Moses. Like Akhenaten’s poem, these hymns focus on the god of the sun, elevating him to the position of supreme god, father of all the other gods, and master of all creation – heavily monotheistic, with a touch of argument to it, as if trying to convince unbelievers of the truth.

The first hymn, known as “How splendid you ferry the skyways,” is a hymn of praise to the sun. Obviously the sun is an essential building block of life, physically and socially, and this rather simple poem illustrates that. “God is a master craftsman” and “When Being began back in the days of the genesis” both deal with the subject of God (Amun) creating himself at the beginning of time, and being the creator of everything else. Finally, “The mind of God is perfect knowing” addresses the omniscience of God primarily, but also touches on his role as father of the gods, creator, and the ultimate cause of everything that is.

Like the Hymn to the Sun, the Leiden Hymns could be directly imported into a compilation of Christian poetry with very minimal editing. The imagery and style are very similar, in my experience – especially “God is a master craftsman” and “The mind of God is perfect knowing.” This could very well be partly due to the translator applying modern phrasing to give readers the feeling that the writer meant to evoke, but I think (supported by the introduction) that the writer himself (or herself) used those phrases, and very little has changed in the world of religious poetry. Not stagnation – timelessness.

Tune in next time for Egyptian poetry of a different flavor!

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: